Last week I wrote on two adjacent occasions about the museum exhibit and book 1001 Inventions which tried to show how Muslim innovations contributed to the modern world. Though true that the Arab world has influenced the world, including in the sciences, the exhibit was factually wrong in many cases and deserving of criticism. I also mentioned an article from Taner Edis and Sonja Brentjes in Skeptical Inquirer which pointed to a goodly number of the problems with that exhibit. Brentjes is an academic that studies the history of science and mathematics, especially in relation to the medieval period and the Islamic world. She has published in various locales, including in Isis, the premiere journal for the history of science.
So it was a surprise that she had read my blog post on the subject and left a comment. But though we agree that the 1001 Inventions exhibit is not up to academic snuff, she also had issue with what I wrote. So, because it was long, I want to respond here. I’ll skip over our agreements, but I do feel misconstrued on numerous points, and others seem to get the same treatment.
First, Brentjes had issue with me saying that Jason Colavito’s response to the Skeptical Inquirer article was competent. So, let me clarify what I think Colavito got right. The SI article did not quote from 1001 Inventions, so it was difficult to know how the exhibit misconstrued the flight of Ibn Firnas. Moreover, the only historical source mentioned in SI, that of al-Maqqari which did not have the details showing that Ibn Firnas’ flight was powered, so the criticism of 1001 Inventions saying that the flight was powered was difficult to support. However, as I noted in my post, 1001 Inventions used other, even less reliable sources that goes beyond that found in al-Maqqari. But that was not known via the SI article, so it required me going to get the 1001 Inventions book to find out what it claimed and how it goes well beyond al-Maqqari for its narrative. So, taking the point that Colavito was trying to make, that it took extra work on the part of the reader of SI to see how the exhibit was credulous, that is what I thought was a reasonable criticism. It was also the reason why in my blog post that I quoted the book 1001 Inventions to show how it was way beyond any of the more reliable sources (not to mention what we know about human physiology). This doesn’t bring into doubt Edis and Brentjes’ criticism of the exhibit, just that it isn’t the best for the lay reader without access to the source material. So, no one is wrong besides the exhibit authors, just that the presentation of the vacuity of the exhibit wasn’t justified in the best way for SI readers.
Moving onto another person that I mentioned: Klingschor. What I said was that he had studied Islam in an academic setting because he is a college student getting his degree in this area. (The video I linked also seems obviously to have been done in a dorm room.) Moreover, his criticism of the book was in academic fashion as it had proper citations, something the exhibit and book 1001 Inventions does not have. However, I did not say I agreed with his assessment of the exhibit, and I even said to some degree he was ruffing up a strawman. So I only highlighted his video to show what responses I have found to the exhibit, but my own critique was independent of it, so the attack on Klingschor is to some degree a red herring. Also, it was surprising to hear from Brentjes calling him a racist. It is true that Klingschor attacks the religion of Islam, but that is far away from being a racist; rather, this reminds me of the response Thomas Thompson got when he doubted the existence of the Biblical patriarchs and was called antisemitic. Considering that Klingschor in the video distinguished Arabs from Muslims, he is avoiding talk of race and not confabulating it with religion. So, I don’t understand what in particular had perturbed Brentjes to make that claim, even though it has nothing to do with my critique.
But getting to what I said rather than others, many ideas seem to be put into my mouth. But before getting into that, let me be clear. I am not a professional historian, let alone of Islamic intellectual developments as Brentjes is, so I do not want to make anyone think I am the fount of knowledge all should drink from when it comes to medieval and ancient science. So when Brentjes says I do not know all the academic studies on the matter, she is absolutely right. However, my criticisms of the 1001 Inventions exhibit as well as the look into Hellenistic science was to make the point that most of the innovations/discoveries mentioned by 1001 Inventions could be found in earlier writings and that the ancients made discoveries far more profound and greater in number (at least in astronomy; in chemistry the ancients were not great). Moreover, I do not claim that the medieval Arab world did not innovate or improve in the sciences, though I argue it did not have as impressive a rate as the Hellenistic scientists had. So, I do not want to take the Eurocentric claim that the Greeks were great, and the Arabs were inferior; but there is a comparison to be made. (Besides, my article talks of many innovations made by Greek writers in Egypt, especially in Alexandria, and I mentioned Babylonian and Chinese scientific knowledge, so I was not being Eurocentric.)
So, let’s get into the dirt. Brentjes agrees that the Greeks had the astrolabe before the Arabs did. But then she says I disregard the work done by Muslims, Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and Sabeans in making astronomical instruments. First, my point of citing Greek astrolabes and armillary spheres was to show Muslims didn’t invent them as 1001 Inventions claims; I didn’t say the Arabs were not great in this respect. In fact, I say that the Arabs did better.
However, the medieval Arab version of the astrolabe was improved without a doubt…
That’s hardly disrespecting Arab contributions when I say they improved on the astrolabe. My claim was just that the Greeks had it first. Hardly racist or disrespectful to Muslims or anyone else. As for Islam being a reason to improve these tools, that is a fair point. Muslims cared about the time of day especially because of getting the correct prayer times, something that would not have been so strong a motivation before Islam. To get an idea of how poor ancients cared about the exact time, Seneca in his Pumpkinification of Claudius 2.2 says how sun dials were an varied in their answers as philosophers; if exact time was so important for most people, these instruments wouldn’t have been so common and popular. So, I must give credit where credit is due, and that is to Muslims who cared to perfect instruments to get better time-keeping.In fact, I am willing to give another Islamicly-motivated contribution to the sciences, one that I don’t think has been argued in the academic literature. In my own research, I had looked into the first observations of the zodiacal lights. This is a glow in the sky due to the light of sun reflecting on dust in the plane of the planets; this light produces a glowing cone before the sun rises. This was an issue in Islam because of the timing of morning prayers, so there is a hadith about the “false dawn”, warning to not confuse it with the real dawn and hence the time of prayer (cf. Qu’ran 2:187). From my search, there seems to be no knowledge of this phenomenon before the time of Mohammad. The hadith comes from Abu Dawud (9th century), and the phenomenon is specified in an 11th century Arabic dictionary. So, this seems to be a discovery as a result of Islamic concerns; find the true dawn, and in observing the sky Muslims discovered the “false dawn” centuries before it was noted by Europeans. So, I think this may be a great example of a religious belief motivating a scientific discovery and examination. So, don’t let it be said that I think there were no Muslim innovations or that Islam did not give motivation for a scientific endeavor. Muslims didn’t just preserve Greek knowledge, nor did they just improve Greek science. Muslims made new discoveries, including the zodiacal lights and the Andromeda galaxy. But since I never claimed Muslims didn’t innovate, Brentjes’ criticism of me on this point is simply missing the target. Next, Brentjes complains that while Ptolemy’s work was inspirational to the Arab world, I did not also related how Ptolemy was helped by astronomical contributions from the Assyrians/Babylonians/Persians. But since my point of citing Ptolemy was usually to show that certain knowledge or tools were pre-Islamic, Brentjes is making a red herring. Besides, I do give credit to the Babylonians when it comes to Hipparchus’ discovery of the precession of the equinoxes, and I said that Babylonians had figured out moon phase times for their own calender work. Sure, I don’t go into such contributions as Otto Neugebaur had done, but I didn’t disregard it either. Moreover, I did not claim that Arab contributions to astronomy were minor because they were inspired by Ptolemy’s Almagest. As I noted, Arab astronomers had issues with Ptolemy’s model of the solar system because of its inconsistency with the physics they understood (namely, that the Earth ought to be at the center of the universe a la Aristotle, not off to the side from the point all the planets actually revolved about a la Ptolemy). As I said:
Arab scientists did try to critique Ptolemy’s model, largely because in that solar system the Earth is not the true centerAlso, I did not say the geocentric model was not doubted in the Arab world. What I said was it was outside of the Arab world
that the heliocentric model was first proposed and then argued favorably by astronomers (starting again with Copernicus).As I said, Aristarchus was the first to argue for heliocentricism, and I could find no pre-Copernican Arab astronomer that advocated heliocentricism. There were philosophers that gave credit to it, such as Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (not to be confused with the chemist Mohammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi). But I said no astronomer argued for heliocentricism. The Maragha school of astronomers created innovative mathematical models to make the geocentric model consistent with their physics and observations, but they didn’t go for heliocentricism, and neither did al-Biruni though he admitted how heliocentricism could account for planetary observations. The best case for an Arab heliocentricist from this time is with al-Katibi, but he abandoned this. So, what I said was true given my specific wording. There was critical discussion of heliocentricism, but it lacked an advocate among the astronomers like Aristarchus, Seleucus, or Copernicus. Moreover, I did not, as Brentjes claims, call the work of Arab geocentricists minor. Heck, I even mentioned how the work of Arab astronomers (such as al-Tusi) may have contributed to the innovation of Copernicus. Sure in a way the work of these scientists was like the early chemists that worked on phlogiston, but the approach was nonetheless scientific. Being wrong does not mean science wasn’t done, and the work was hardly useless. In addition, Ptolemy was wrong in his geocentricism, so to be consistent I would have to think that Ptolemy’s model and work was minor. Even though he and the astronomers at the Maragha observatory were ultimately wrong, their work isn’t minor to the history of science. (Compare that to Carl Sagan in Cosmos where he basically just talks about Ptolemy in disparaging terms.) All I claim is that those astronomers failed to jump to heliocentricism as Copernicus did. So, I think Sonja Brentjes has unfairly claimed I said things I didn’t, I belittled work that I didn’t claim was minor, and I ignored things that were irrelevant to my critique (such as non-Greek astronomy contributions to Ptolemy). However, it is true that I do not know the full contribution medieval Arabs made to astronomy–just that it was not as great in magnitude as the previous Greco-Roman astronomers. I know that historian of science Richard Carrier agrees with me about the comparison between Hellenistic and medieval Arab scientific progress, so I’m not out on a limb alone. I’m also not completely ignorant on the subject. For example, for my paper on interpretations of the Star of Bethlehem, I traced astrological theories from Mesha’allah to Abu Mashar and then to Europeans; in my research I have also looked at the work of people like al-Biruni. I have also spent a goodly amount of time looking at cuneiform astronomical records and other related writings from the Middle East (all translated into English) for my research. (And note my handle is Gilgamesh, the famous king in epic who was Sumerian and best remembered in Akkadian texts, so I take interest beyond what the Greeks and Romans did.) But the library of what there is to explore is vast, and much of it may still be waiting to be found and translated. I want to learn more of it; it is fascinating. To close, it is worth repeating something noted decades ago by David Pingree, the amazing polyglot and historian of science. Pingree saw in his field a sort of hellenophilia, that is, too much love of Greek contributions to science and ignorance of so many other cultures. Pingree himself helped to combat this by working in texts of many languages from across the Eastern world. Arabic, Pahlavi, Hindi, etc. And the history of science must not ignore the contributions and advancements made by Indians, Chinese, and Arabs. To those that forget such work, even if the non-Western scientists were ultimately wrong about things, “they clearly deprive themselves of an opportunity to understand science more deeply” (Pingree, “Hellenophilia versus the History of Science”, Isis 83, 4 (1992), p. 558). However, that doesn’t mean we can forgive the terrible presentation of 1001 Inventions. Brentjes and I still agree on that totally, but at least she is keeping us all honest, even if I think she misconstrued me. But that’s all part of scholastic exercises. So, while I disagree with Brentjes on much of her critique of my post, I want to thank her for keeping me honest and accurate. I hope she finds my blog post on the flight of Ibn Firnas more in line with her research.